Europe is facing an insectageddon — and Brussels isn’t helping.
Dwindling populations of pollinators such as wild bees, butterflies and hoverflies which are crucial for food supplies and a functioning ecosystem face an existential threat from climate change and intensive agriculture. Scientists from the universities of Sydney and Queensland, Australia, reckon up to 40 percent of the world’s insect species could become extinct in the coming decades.
Despite this lethal climate for bugs, a major report from the European Court of Auditors (ECA) on Thursday said the EU is failing to do its bit to halt their decline.
“We identified gaps in key EU policies addressing the main threats to wild pollinators,” the report states.
The auditors’ sobering assessment found that the EU’s flagship farm policy, which has soaked up almost 40 percent of the EU’s budget since 2014, contains no specific laws for protecting wild pollinators. The current Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is being overhauled, deemed by many, including the ECA, to have failed for biodiversity.
“We are witnessing a massive decline in wild pollinators, but we are equipped only by an initiative with no legal force” — Slovak MEP Martin Hojsík
“The auditors consider that it is part of the problem, not part of the solution,” ECA wrote in a statement.
The ECA report also suggests there is no guarantee that the next seven-year CAP will deliver for insects either, as Brussels’ proposed reform does not oblige national governments to make receiving EU farm subsidies conditional on protecting pollinators.
A nonbinding 2018 European Commission initiative to combat pollinator decline has led to very little change, because only two EU officials have worked on it full-time and there were no targets or criteria for measuring its progress, the auditors say.
Slovak MEP Martin Hojsík told POLITICO: “The ECA assessment says it all. We are witnessing a massive decline in wild pollinators, but we are equipped only by an initiative with no legal force.”
The use of synthetic pesticides to kill plant pests is also viewed as a severe threat to pollinators’ numbers. An international team of scientists wrote in the Nature Ecology & Evolution journal in January that reducing farmers’ use of these chemicals should be part of the insect recovery roadmap.
An investigation by Greenpeace’s journalism unit Unearthed, released on Wednesday, found that bee-harming pesticides that have already been banned by the EU are still in use. The EU fully banned the outdoor use of neonicotinoid pesticides to protect pollinators in 2018 but, since then, 16 EU countries have issued a total of 67 emergency licenses for these substances.
Neonic insecticides are chemically similar to nicotine and paralyze the nervous system of insects that come into contact with a treated plant, typically maize, sugar beet or oilseed rape. Belgium, Romania and Poland have given their farmers the most licenses since 2018.
Their continued use is made possible by the EU’s main pesticides law which allows countries to grant special four-month derogations in case of pest outbreaks that can’t be controlled “by any other reasonable means.”
But doubts center on whether countries are properly justifying these licenses when they notify them to the European Commission — a problem also raised in the ECA’s report. One request from Denmark in 2019 asked for a banned neonic to be used on 40 hectares of golf courses to deal with turf-destroying beetles.
Earlier this year, Brussels took unilateral action to ban Romania and Lithuania from repeatedly granting their farmers permission to use banned neonics without proper justification, even when it proved impossible to convince a majority of EU countries to condemn the practice.
Focus on the wild side
Lead auditor Samo Jereb said at a press briefing on Wednesday: “This is really the problem and the Commission until now was relatively inactive and they started only in 2020 to react on those authorizations which were not properly justified in some cases.”
Jereb’s report also notes that the EU’s pesticide approval process only requires regulators to consider a chemical’s impact on honey bees — a managed species — and not wild bees, of which there are around 2,000 species in Europe.
The European Parliament created a stand-off with the Commission over the exclusion of wild pollinators in pesticide risk assessments last October, when it blocked the Commission’s proposed assessment methodology.
“The tragedy of this is that a lot of our food crop depends on the insects that we are killing through the pesticides management” — Jane Stout, a professor of botany at Trinity College Dublin
Since 2013 a majority of EU countries have refused to vote through a set of strict EU guidelines which would force checks on pesticides’ cumulative impact on several kinds of bees.
EU countries have refused to back the guidance, which the pesticide industry says requires scientifically-impossible kinds of field testing.
A petition to phase out synthetic pesticides has gained over 350,000 signatures since launching last November.
“The tragedy of this is that a lot of our food crop depends on the insects that we are killing through the pesticides management,” said Jane Stout, a professor of botany at Trinity College Dublin. “All insecticides are designed to kill insects so we shouldn’t be surprised that they do,” she said.
German chemicals giant Bayer and Swiss-based Syngenta both manufacture neonics and maintain the substances are safe.
A spokesperson for the European Crop Protection Association, which represents the pesticides industry in Brussels, said: “We acknowledge that pesticides can have an impact, but there are many others stressors affecting pollinator health like habitat loss, climate change, invasive species or disease (to name a few) and for which tangible EU-level measures are often missing. “
A spokesperson for Syngenta, which makes the neonic thiamethoxam, said the company “accepts but does not agree” with the Commission’s view that the pesticides are harmful to bees.
“The fact that farmers are still requesting access to thiamethoxam indicates the continued importance of this substance for agriculture in Europe, in the absence of an efficient and effective alternative for farmers to protect their crops,” the spokesperson said.
In its response to the ECA report, the European Commission broadly accepted the auditors’ recommendations to assess the need for specific measures for wild pollinators and improve their protection in the EU’s pesticide approval process. However, the Commission only “partially” accepted the auditors’ contention that the current CAP had had mixed results for biodiversity.
A European Commission spokesperson said that three directorates general are “heavily involved in working on pollinators.”
“The Biodiversity Strategy for 2030 aims at halting and reversing the decline in farmland birds and insects, particularly pollinators,” the spokesperson said.
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